Parliamentary reforms worth fighting for

You may not have noticed, but a battle important to parliamentary democracy commenced yesterday.
Andrew Blick
26 November 2009

You may not have noticed, but a battle important to parliamentary democracy commenced yesterday. At Prime Minister's Questions Gordon Brown stated that he welcomed the report published on Tuesday by the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, chaired by Tony Wright MP, adding 'I believe that there will be a warm welcome for some of the proposals in the report [emphasis added].'

Brown's underwhelming response to this publication, Rebuilding the House, should be taken as a compliment by those responsible for producing it; and an indication that its contents are worth fighting for. Wright's Committee was established in the wake of the expenses scandal earlier this year and could represent the most substantial 'official' attempt to seize the 'moment' for democratic reform that appeared at this point. It looked at three main issues: the appointment of select committees, the control of the business of the House; and public engagement with it.

The terms of reference have been viewed as too narrow by some, including Michael Meacher MP but there is no doubt that they cover important subjects. The Committee has made significant proposals in the first area, that would give the House, as opposed to the whips who currently dominate, an enhanced role in determining the chairs and other members of Commons select committees. This advance would be much needed from a democratic perspective, since it is clearly inappropriate that individuals with key responsibility for holding the government to account should be selected by the executive. 

On public engagement, the third item on its list, the Committee is less impressive and has been criticised by the Hansard Society for a lack of radicalism. But it seems that a strategic decision was taken to focus on the second subject: control of the timetable of the Commons. The logic here is clear. Until this issue is properly addressed public engagement will lack meaning, and the public could be forgiven for thinking that Parliament is not really an entity worth engaging with. In the words of the Committe, broadly speaking 'the Government enjoys not merely precedence but exclusive domination of much of the House's agenda, and can stop others seeking similar control.'

As with arrangements for select committees, it is democratically indefensible that a body responsible for holding the executive to account and for representing the country as a whole should be dominated by government in this way. The report concludes that 'The agenda should fall to be decided by the House', if necessary by a vote; and proposes structural changes to reduce the level of government preeminence, including the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee elected by a secret ballot of the whole House. 

Such a change would be important in perceptual terms, underlining that Parliament is an entity in its own right, and hopefully encouraing cultural change in this direction in the process. It could also facilitate further positive developments.To take one, in the past I have been critical of government proposals presented as providing Parliament with a greater part in treaty-making, on the grounds that they would create only a theoretical right and would rarely lead to debates about particular international agreements, let alone votes on whether they should be ratified. 

Yet the shift in responsibility advocated by the Committee might make such consideration a genuine prospect. We should remain aware of what the Committee describes as 'real-world political constraints'. There is only so much Parliament can do within its calendar; and much of the time MPs will wish to behave in a partisan fashion, rather than as Parliamentarians per se.

But Brown's guarded reaction yesterday confirms that the Committee has made proposals which would significantly alter the way in which Parliament operates. They deserve support, and the Commons should be given the opportunity for a free vote on them, as proposed by the Committee, not in any other diluted form.

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